Dunbar Group | NSW Environment & Heritage

Culture and heritage


Dunbar Group

Item details

Name of item: Dunbar Group
Type of item: Archaeological-Maritime
Group/Collection: Transport - Water
Category: Shipwreck
Location: Lat: -33.8502550593 Long: 151.2881156400
Primary address: , Watsons Bay, NSW 2030
Local govt. area: Woollahra
All addresses
Street AddressSuburb/townLGAParishCountyType
 Watsons BayWoollahra  Primary Address
 VariousMultiple LGAs  Alternate Address


Organisation NameOwner CategoryDate Ownership Updated
Land and Property Management Authority (LPMA)State Government 
Woollahra Municipal CouncilLocal Government 

Statement of significance:

The Dunbar Group comprises:
a) the shipwreck remains;
b) the Gillies artefact collection owned and managed by the Australian National Maritime Museum;
c) The Anchor memorial at The Gap; and
d) the historic rock cutting on the cliffs above the wreck site.

The Dunbar wreck site and its associated relics are a significant component of Australia's maritime heritage by virtue of the shipwreck's impact in 1857 on the developing colony of New South Wales, its influence on the improvement of navigational aids in Port Jackson (construction of Hornby Lighthouse) and its potential for interpretation through public education programs. The disaster ranks as New South Wales' worst peace time merchant shipping tragedy. The loss of 121 passengers and crew with sole survivor James Johnson, rocked Sydney and the nation. The event is still remembered today through annual ceremonies at St Stephens Anglican Church, Camperdown (Newtown) - site of the government mass burial plot, and individual gravestones.

The Dunbar Anchor memorial and Dunbar rock inscription are a significant component of the Dunbar historic shipwreck story, and linked directly to the Historic Shipwreck remains, and to contemporary and modern community interest in the 1857 tragedy.

The Dunbar anchor memorial at 'The Gap' and the nearby rock inscription provide alternate public venues for community appreciation of the tragedy and impact on the inhabitants of Sydney.
Date significance updated: 27 Oct 03
Note: The State Heritage Inventory provides information about heritage items listed by local and State government agencies. The State Heritage Inventory is continually being updated by local and State agencies as new information becomes available. Read the OEH copyright and disclaimer.


Designer/Maker: Ship: James Laing
Builder/Maker: Ship: James Laing & Sons, Sunderland
Construction years: 1852-1853
Physical description: A timber full-rigged ship built from British Oak and East India Teak. Three masts, square rigged. Registered tonnage was 1321 tons. Copper fastened throughout, iron knees. Length of vessel: 201.9 feet; Breadth: 35 feet; depth: 22.7 feet. Copper sheathed. Rampant lion figurehead carved by James Brooker of Maryport.

The Dunbar Anchor Memorial comprises a large (approximately 4metre) iron Admiralty pattern anchor, attached to the natural sandstone rock cliff face above the southern end of The Gap. The rock face has been worked to a vertical surface to accept the anchor which is fastened to it, with a remnant shackle attached. The memorial includes a stone plinth bonded to the wall detailing the date and purpose of the monument. A timber safety rail fence surrounds the memorial precinct.

The second item, a rock cut inscription, was inscribed on the flat (horizontal) sandstone cliff top above the actual wreck site location. The incription reads :DUNBAR C.P. 25th AUG 1857 RECUT BY E.S.S. 20 AUG 1906". It is unknown which tools were used to make the incription, which have subsequently been picked out by dark pigmenr (paint?).
Physical condition and/or
Archaeological potential:
The shipwreck site has been greatly reduced due to the exposed nature of its setting at the foot of the South Head cliffs and its shallow depth (~7-8 metres of water). The archaeological remains have been severely reduced due to the actions of salvage divers at the site since its re-discovery in the early 1950's. Without heritage legislation in force and a lack of understanding of conservation science and heritage protection, the Dunbar and other notable wreck sites , were severely damaged at this time. Uncontrolled looting at the site lasted until the 1970's, the use of explosives known from the earlier period of this activity. Today, the main elements consist of one Admiralty and one Porters iron anchor, concreted anchor chain, pig iron ballast blocks scattered through the sandstone rock gullies, and many fragmentary remains of cargo items, ships fittings and fastenings.

The Dunbar anchor has been in outdoor exhibition since 1930 and was the focus of an intensive materials conservation seminar in 1991, held by Woollahra Council with the NSW Heritage Office. The anchor underwent conservation treatment at that time. Ongoing corrosion problems suggest that the anchor is in need of reassessment in terms of the conservation technique used.

The rock inscription appears to have been hand carved and is still sharp and distinct. There appears to have been little physical weathering at the site.
Date condition updated:15 Jul 03
Modifications and dates: While recovered in 1910, the anchor was not established at the site until 1930.

The rock inscription was carved by an onlloker at the scene of the shipwreck event on 25 August 1857, five dys after the event, and apparently recut by another individual on 20 August 1906, 49 years to the day of the disaster.
Further information: The Dunbar disaster ranks as one of Australia's worst maritime disasters. The nature of the event is still retained in the social history of Sydney and NSW. The name Dunbar is widely known in today's society, and the wreck event gave rise to the naming of the cliff face where the vessel struck, as "Dunbar Head".

The Dunbar anchor used in The Gap memorial appears to have been one of two anchors reported to have been removed from the actual wreck site in 1910 by a local syndicate interested in preserving the memory of Dunbar. The group relocated the wreck site in 1907.
Current use: Shipwreck: Recreational. Anchor memorial, Gillies, etc: Recreational, education
Former use: Trade, transport, military services


Historical notes: The Dunbar was built as a first class passenger and cargo carrier. Ship rigged and well fitted out throughout, the vessel was, at the time of launching, the largest timber vessel constructed in Sunderland. This was partly in response to the demand for ships to carry passengers to the Australian goldfields. The Dunbar however was initially deployed as a troop ship in the Crimean War and did not become involved in the Australian trade until 1856. During the night of the 20th August 1857, the ship was approaching the entrance to Port Jackson on its second trip. There were 59 crew and 63 passengers on board under command of Captain Green. Approaching the Heads in a violent storm, the crew burnt a blue light to attract a pilot. The ship was driven against the cliffs of South Head and rapidly broke apart. Only one out of 122 survived, Able Seaman James Johnson, who managed to cling to the cliff face until rescued some 1-2 days later. Bodies and wreckage filled the harbour. A funeral was held in Sydney for the dead which included several prominent residents and business people. There were seven hearses, 4 mourning coaches and a long procession of carriages. The city closed down for the ceremony and the streets lined with mourners while all flags flew at half mast across the city and harbour. The ceremony was held at St Stephens Cemetery in Newtown, the bodies of some victims being placed in a mass grave funded by the Government. A later enquiry blamed the disaster on insufficient navigational aids in the Harbour. As a result of this loss and that of the ship Catherine Adamson at North Head some 9 weeks later, the Government built the Hornby Light at the tip of South Head. James Johnson was eventually employed in Newcastle as the lighthouse keeper and on 12 July 1866, helped rescue the sole survivor from the Cawarra disaster at Newcastle. Memorial services for the victims of the Dunbar are still held annually at St Stephens Church.

Anchor memorial and cutting
The Dunbar Historic Shipwreck is located beneath the South Head cliffs near to the Signal Station. The site appears to have been relocated several times since the 1857 loss. The anchor that forms the memorial was recovered from the wreck, identified as Dunbar, in 1910. There is no reason to suggest that this was not the Dunbar wreck, being the only reported site in the immediate vicinity of the cliffs. A very similar anchor is retained on the identified Dunbar wreck site today and may be the other 'bower' or main anchor used by the Ship. The rock inscription situated above the wreck location appears to have been cut by an onlooker to the tragedy unfolding below, and later recut on an anniversary of the wreck. Its historical associations are not questioned.

Historic themes

Australian theme (abbrev)New South Wales themeLocal theme
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Events-Activities and processes that mark the consequences of natural and cultural occurences (none)-
3. Economy-Developing local, regional and national economies Transport-Activities associated with the moving of people and goods from one place to another, and systems for the provision of such movements (none)-

Assessment of significance

SHR Criteria a)
[Historical significance]
Significant in the evolution of sea safety. The loss of the fine passenger ship with that of the Catherine Adamson 9 weeks later on North Head, created enormous pressure for the locating of a lighthouse closer to South Head to mark the actual harbour entrance (Hornby Light). A site representative of the dangers associated with immigrant travel during the period of the 1850s gold rushes. The events that followed the wrecking, the search, recovery and burial of victims, had a considerable impact on the rapidly expanding colony, possessing in its population a large proportion of people who had travelled by sea and were able to relate to its hardships and fears.
SHR Criteria b)
[Associative significance]
The Dunbar anchor memorial was established by the local government as a permanent memorial of the horrendous loss of the Dunbar ship, its passengers and crew, in 1857. The 'Dunbar Disaster', as commonly referred, shocked the inhabitants of Sydney and Australia generally. The fine Ship built to high standards in Scotland by a notable shipbuilder, was destroyed in a matter of minutes by extreme storm conditions. The tragic loss of 121 lives, many women and children, had a devastating effect on the community and ranks as the worst peacetime merchant maritime tragedy to befall NSW.

The outpouring of public emotion included a phase of intensive visitation to the scene of the wreck site. Crowds made their way to the South Head cliff tops above the wreck and witnessed its final destruction and the significant loss of life and cargo. The rock inscription was cut five days after the tragedy by C.P. (identity unknown), probably by one such visitor to the site. It was re-cut 49 years to the day of the actual loss in 1906 by another unknown individual.
SHR Criteria c)
[Aesthetic significance]
The vessel, wrecked at the foot of the sheer cliffs below the Signal Station at South Head, has a dramatic aspect and the place a melancholy atmosphere. A rock inscription overlooking the site records the loss, and is a tangible reminder of the tragedy which occurred below. It is linked by the headland walking track to "The Gap" where one of the Dunbar's anchors is displayed. The site is accessible to the general public, retaining potential for further significant interpretative programs.

The physical cliff face became known as Dunbar Head due to the impact site and is formally recognised as such today as a significant coastal landmark.

The wreck event formed the focus of contemporary artists who captured the terrifying scene through notable artworks, several within the State Library of NSW collection. Artists include G.F. Gregory, Samuel Thomas Gill.
SHR Criteria d)
[Social significance]
A site significant for the impact that the loss had on the colonial population and which is retained in the social fabric of Sydney to this day. Representing the most significant shipwreck loss in NSW, the appalling nature of the disaster and the extreme loss of life and property are remembered in annual memorial services at the victim's graves located within St Stephens Cemetery, Newtown.

The Dunbar Anchor Memorial acts as a public focal point for the interpretation of the tragedy. Situated prominently at ‘The Gap’, scene of chaos at the time of the tragedy, visitors are invited to learn of the Dunbar history through interpretative plaques.

Significant local interest was generated in relocating the wreck of the Dunbar and relics from the site. Attempts are known at the time of the tragedy in 1857, in 1861, and in 1907 when two anchors were first reported underwater and a syndicate formed to recover them in 1910. One of those anchors appears to have formed the memorial established at The Gap in 1930. These events constitute concerted attempts to establish a public memorial to the tragedy and to mark, through time, the significant nature of the wreck event.

‘The Gap’ and the South Head coastal cliff top walk retain significance of place, as an area that witnessed the break-up of the Dunbar wreck site, slightly to the south. The anchor memorial serves to focus public appreciation of the loss for the contemporary colonial population.
SHR Criteria e)
[Research potential]
The material remaining on the Dunbar site is of low significance in terms of its technical attributes. Material that has been removed from the site, eg) spectacles, telescopes, coins, cutlery, anchors, cannon, etc, is likely to be of moderate significance. One collection of artefacts recovered from the site and egistered with the Commonwealth Historic Shipwrecks Amnesty in 1993-5, The Gillies Collection, retains significance for the scale of its objects, as a record of early shipwreck salvage activities and the impact that uncontrolled access to these fragile sites can generate. The collection, now owned and managed by the Australian National Maritime Museum, is representative of the types of materials imported to Australian during the 1850's. It holds potential for research into conservation standards and applications.
SHR Criteria f)
The Dunbar shipwreck is significant, particularly in relation to its interpretative potential, as a rare example of a shipwreck associated with a significant loss of life in close proximity to a major port and centre of population.

Recovered from the wreck site in 1910 and established as a public memorial in 1930, the resulting anchor monument is unique in New South Wales for its scale and visual setting. As an easily accessible monument to a significant shipping tragedy at the entrance to Sydney, the memorial and associated rock cutting, demonstrate the contemporary community’s reaction to the impact of the Dunbar disaster to their world. The monument continues to form a component of the city’s cultural fabric, as a rare example of a public venue established to keep the memory of those lost, current.

The Dunbar Admiralty-pattern anchor is characteristic of the type of large iron anchors employed by international sailing vessels during the mid nineteenth century. It comprises one of the ‘bower’ or main anchors from the vessel, another example of which is retained on the wreck site underwater.

Comparable government memorials to shipwrecks in NSW include the Walter Hood 1870 memorial near Bendalong; and the Ly-ee-Moon Cemetery (1890) at Greencape.
SHR Criteria g)
Representative, particularly in relation to its historical attributes, of the dangers associated with immigrant travel in the mid 1850s.

The Dunbar anchor memorial and the cliff-top cutting are unique items in NSW in terms of land-based memorials to historic shipwreck events. Such was the impact of the 1857 disaster that the contemporary population wished it to be retained in living memory.

Comparable government memorials to shipwrecks in NSW include the Walter Hood 1870 memorial near Bendalong; and the Ly-ee-Moon Cemetery (1890) at Greencape.
Integrity/Intactness: Due to extensive salvage by SCUBA divers in the 1950s and 1960s, the site's integrity has been severely eroded. Portions of intact archaeological deposits are retained on-site which might retain a moderate level of potential for future scientific examination.
Assessment criteria: Items are assessed against the PDF State Heritage Register (SHR) Criteria to determine the level of significance. Refer to the Listings below for the level of statutory protection.

Recommended management:

Monitoring of site to assess extent and effect of wave and surge activity. Continued research into the vessel and its victims. Cataloguing of remaining private collections of Dunbar relics held in the community.

Procedures /Exemptions

Section of actDescriptionTitleCommentsAction date
57(2)Exemption to allow workStandard Exemptions SCHEDULE OF STANDARD EXEMPTIONS
Notice of Order Under Section 57 (2) of the Heritage Act 1977

I, the Minister for Planning, pursuant to subsection 57(2) of the Heritage Act 1977, on the recommendation of the Heritage Council of New South Wales, do by this Order:

1. revoke the Schedule of Exemptions to subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act made under subsection 57(2) and published in the Government Gazette on 22 February 2008; and

2. grant standard exemptions from subsection 57(1) of the Heritage Act 1977, described in the Schedule attached.

Minister for Planning
Sydney, 11 July 2008

To view the schedule click on the Standard Exemptions for Works Requiring Heritage Council Approval link below.
Sep 5 2008

PDF Standard exemptions for works requiring Heritage Council approval


Heritage ListingListing TitleListing NumberGazette DateGazette NumberGazette Page
Heritage Act - State Heritage Register 0167517 Oct 03 16710126
National Historic Shipwreck Register and database     

References, internet links & images

TypeAuthorYearTitleInternet Links
Tourism 2007Dunbar Shipwreck Group View detail
TourismAttraction Homepage2007Dunbar Shipwreck Group View detail

Note: internet links may be to web pages, documents or images.

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Data source

The information for this entry comes from the following source:
Name: Heritage Office
Database number: 5001064
File number: H03/00241/1

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